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August 28, 2014

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High-tech Strip shows usher in demand for specialized support workers

Image

Leila Navidi

Rigger Adam Wilber works during the stage pre-set of Cirque du Soleil’s “Ka” at MGM Grand on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011.

Behind the Scenes at 'Ka'

Rigger Adam Wilber is seen at the top of the vertical stage during a fighting scene at Cirque du Soleil's Launch slideshow »

Mathieu Guyard’s safety hinges on the effectiveness of Kevlar wiring with a minimum breaking strength of 7,000 pounds, high-speed winches and performer-held controls that raise and lower the French-born acrobat as fast as 11 feet per second.

At 5 feet 9 and a very fit 162 pounds, he’ll rise as high as 50 feet above the “Ka” theater stage at the MGM Grand, directed by a stage manager who utters cues to the actors via lightweight earpieces that receive radio signals. The audience of 1,800 people takes it all in from seats with multiple speakers behind and in front of them.

None of this was possible in the days before computer chips, high-tensile-strength synthetic fiber and ultralightweight equipment.

The result is a multidimensional fighting scene that meshes art and technology that wasn’t available 30 years ago when Liberace was flying above the Las Vegas Hilton stage.

“It’s a big technical show,” Guyard said, “and it’s been an adventure so far.”

Cirque du Soleil’s “Ka” production may be the most technologically advanced stage show in Las Vegas, with its reliance on state-of-the-art equipment placing it at the forefront of the computer-chip-driven evolution of stagecraft throughout the Strip entertainment scene.

With the trend has come demand for a new breed of production crew member with the education needed to understand the technology and operate it. Where a skilled worker once could get by with a lengthy apprenticeship before rising to the journeyman level, modern shows require technicians with college degrees and experience in engineering and industrial design.

“They’re creating more jobs, just different types of jobs,” said Professor Joe Aldridge, coordinator of UNLV’s Entertainment, Engineering and Design program. “It means the labor force has to be of a different caliber, a different mindset.”

Aldridge, a stagehand in multiple Strip shows in the 1980s, says many of the behind-the-scenes job titles remain from past years: rigger, spotlight operator, soundboard controller. The need to think quickly and respond to the unexpected also remains. It’s the equipment that’s changed, as well as the education needed to understand and operate it.

“Most of the skills I employed as a stagehand are arcane right now,” Aldridge said. “For example, you have to understand the programming language for automated lightboards. You don’t have to know how to program them, just how to fix a glitch.”

Many of the elements found in the most advanced Strip performances have their roots in the classic shows of the 1970s and 1980s, from the high-wire flights of Liberace to the appearance of a retractable 32-foot bull in Donn Arden’s “Jubilee,” which opened in 1981 at the original MGM Grand.

“Ka,” with a reported production cost of $165 million, has altered the equation, Aldridge said. He points to the show’s seven stages and platforms, including the 40-ton stage that tilts vertically for the battle scene that features Guyard and his 13 colleagues.

“We’ve had this 800-pound gorilla move into our living room,” Aldridge said of Cirque du Soleil and its seven shows along Las Vegas Boulevard. “They came to town, had greater expecations and were willing to push the envelope. Before that, the hotels weren’t as willing to invest the money into entertainment.”

Keith Wright personifies the new generation of backstage manager. A rigger of theater ropes and wiring as a teenager, today the 41-year-old operations production manager for “Ka” holds an MBA on top of a bachelor’s degree in communications. He’s equally comfortable working a rope line 50 feet above the stage or eyeing a spreadsheet. The continuous operation of “Ka’s” seven stages and the safety of the show’s performers and backstage crew top his nightly priority list. Five of the stages, which double as lifts, are used to raise and lower equipment during the 90-minute show.

“If any one of those seven moving stages doesn’t work, we’re dead in the water. We can’t continue the show,” Wright said. “I honestly couldn’t move a wheeled cart from one side of the stage to the other unless I’m able to bring up one of the five lifts. We’re very much hamstrung, which means we need to be very proactive on maintenance. We need to have that mindset of what are the most likely routes of failure. What are the most likely remedies. How are we going to continue this? What are we looking at? What do we need to know?”

A burly man who stands over 6 feet tall, Wright recalled the fallout from the simple failure of a pulley a week earlier before the first of two shows that night. Backstage riggers noticed that a rope used to secure netting to catch performers had become knotted and through the careful examination of the line, a pulley was identified as the culprit. It had its own serial code, and the 6-inch piece of steel was removed and replaced, its fate recorded on a computer spreadsheet. As a result, several elements were cut from that night’s performances until the pulley and rope could be replaced.

Wright said safety, not technology, was his primary concern.

“There is so much more potential danger, and there’s more of the peer pressure that goes along with it,” he said. “Seeing people do death-defying things on a regular basis, you don’t get immune to it. You get hypersensitive to it.”

While Wright and his Cirque colleagues are often credited for leading the trend toward technological advancement, they’re not the only ones pushing the envelope.

Since 2006, a year after “Ka” opened, a one-ton chandelier made of hand-strung crystals has been falling nightly toward the audience of “Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular.” Knowledgeable audience members seek seating beneath the costly prop, which requires manipulation of 24 small motors to move.

“Showrooms have certainly evolved over the years from the typical Vegas showroom with theatrical staged-lighting systems to a much higher level of machinery and automation and controls,” said Matt Vest, senior project manager for MSA Engineering Consultants, which oversaw development of the chandelier. “Some of it is the computer chip. The technology has evolved far beyond what it was 20 years ago.”

Wright believes more advancements lie ahead, such as air bags that are deployed or deflated depending upon the readings of computer-chip-driven sensors. He also envisions motorized spotlights that will employ Bluetooth-style technology, like that used for mobile phones, coordinating the movements between spotlight and entertainer. So how will those advances be used in the next generation of shows?

“That’s up to the people who are really creative,” Wright said.

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  1. Gary: Thanks for catching a typo. My apologies for the error. That should read "a year after" rather than "a year before." We'll get that corrected. Again, my apologies.

    Dave Berns

  2. Thanks Star. The athleticism of the performers is stunning. I strongly recommend that you click through the photo montage shot by photographer Leila Navidi. She captured some great images shot from high-above the theater floor.

  3. 777s: The crew members are extremely athletic, and their work is very challenging.